The sign Jesus gave has obvious features, easily noticed everywhere. These are not obscure or abstract. Note part of Jesus’ answer at Matthew 24:7: “For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages and earthquakes in one place after another.” When wars strike, nations know it. When people are hungry—starving—they know it. And when an earthquake shakes the ground under your feet, you know it, because an earthquake is one of the most awesome natural events that can be experienced. These and other highly visible features, all afflicting mankind within one generation, compose “the sign.” (Matthew 24:3, 34) Let us examine just one part of this “sign”—earthquakes.
Earthquakes—What Did Jesus Mean?
Jesus was not a seismologist. He was a preacher and teacher, also a prophet. While “full of holy spirit” and under the direction of this invisible active force from Jehovah, Jesus prophesied concerning earthquakes and other features of “the sign.”—Luke 4:1; John 8:28.
Was there a first-century fulfillment of Jesus’ words? Yes. Biblical and secular history record a great number of earthquakes between the year of his prophecy, 33 C.E., and the devastation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Two earth tremors shook Jerusalem within days of Jesus’ prophecy. (Matthew 27:51; 28:2) Seventeen years later an earthquake occurred in the city of Philippi, as Bible writer Luke noted. (Acts 16:26) In addition, non-Biblical historians point to at least six major earthquakes in that part of the earth during that period. (See Chart I.)
What made earthquakes special in the first century? And was the report of an earthquake unusual news to first-century Christians? Answering those questions can help us understand the significance of earthquakes in our day.
Since the earth’s crust around the Mediterranean, including Jerusalem, lies in a moderately active earthquake zone, and therefore would suffer from crustal instability, earth tremors would not be uncommon to first-century inhabitants of the area. For example, the Great Rift Valley of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea and the transverse faults that form the Plain of Esdraelon (Jezreel) between Galilee and Samaria were associated with earthquakes even before the first century.—Amos 1:1; Zechariah 14:5.
Earthquakes in themselves would not give any special significance to Jesus’ prophetic “sign” of Jerusalem’s approaching end, any more than a high fever would give indication of a specific illness without other symptoms being present. Therefore, what added special meaning to Jesus’ prediction of earthquakes was that they occurred in combination with all the other features of “the sign.” And it was this composite “sign” of predicted events that first-century Christians witnessed and to which they responded.
Does Jesus’ prediction of earthquakes find a fulfillment in the 20th century? In other words, have there been great earthquakes that indicate we are living at “the conclusion of the system of things”? Facts prove that this century is being rocked by earthquakes. The earth experiences more than 1,000,000 per year, with 1,000 of them being damaging shocks.
Some seismologists believe that the earth is now in an active earthquake period. For example, Professor Keiiti Aki of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology speaks of “the apparent surge in intensity and frequency of major earthquakes during the last one hundred years,” though stating that the period from 1500 through 1700 was as active.
In the Italian journal Il Piccolo, of October 8, 1978, Geo Malagoli observed:
“Our generation lives in a dangerous period of high seismic activity, as statistics show. In fact, during a period of 1,059 years (from 856 to 1914) reliable sources list only 24 major earthquakes causing 1,973,000 deaths. However, [in] recent disasters, we find that 1,600,000 persons have died in only 63 years, as a result of 43 earthquakes which occurred from 1915 to 1978. This dramatic increase further goes to emphasize another accepted fact—our generation is an unfortunate one in many ways.”
Jesus prophesied that “the conclusion of the system of things” would be marked by “earthquakes in one place after another,” and, according to Luke’s account, “great earthquakes.” (Matthew 24:3, 7; Luke 21:11) Has the generation that was living in 1914, and of which there are still many survivors, witnessed these things? The facts answer, Yes! (See Chart II.) And earthquakes are still being witnessed not only by remaining ones of that generation but by the largest number of people in history. (Matthew 24:34) Mankind today is also more aware of the global activity of earthquakes and their effects than were people in any past century.
What is it that would make an earthquake “great”? Its intensity, or magnitude, as measured by the Mercalli or Richter scale? Or, rather, would it not be its notoriety and the amount of destruction it caused? As the accompanying Chart III indicates, loss of human life due to earthquakes has mushroomed since 1914. And some of them with the greatest magnitude have been deep within oceans, known only to a few, with little if any effect on human property or life. In determining the modern fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, we should focus not merely on the magnitude of quakes according to the Richter or other such scale but on the extent of resultant property damage and loss of human life.
Clearly Part of “the Sign”
Europe magazine of July–August 1980 states: “In this century, earthquakes have cost the lives of some 1,600,000 people, with 120,000 dead in Europe alone.” So when we view the world scene and compare it with Jesus’ words we can agree that “earthquakes in one place after another” and even “great earthquakes” have been taking place. Has any single generation of the past experienced such grim destruction by earthquakes as that afflicting mankind since 1914? Statistics indicate none.
[Chart on page 6]
Some Earthquakes Between 33-70 C.E.
c. 46 Crete
c. 50 Philippi
53 Apam æa
c. 67 Jerusalem
[Chart on page 7]
Some Major Earthquakes Between 1914 and 1982
YEAR LOCATION DEATHS
1915 Avezzano, Italy 29,970
1920 Kansu, China 200,000
1923 Kanto, Japan 142,800
1932 Kansu, China 70,000
1934 Bihar-Nepal, India 10,700
1935 Quetta, Pakistan 60,000
1939 Chillan, Chile 30,000
1939 Erzincan, Turkey 30,000
1950 Assam, India 20,000
1960 Agadir, Morocco 12,000
1962 Northwestern Iran 12,230
1968 Northeastern Iran 11,500
1970 Northern Peru 66,700
1972 Managua, Nicaragua 10,000
1976 Guatemala City, Guatemala 23,000
1976 Tangshan, China 800,000
1978 Northeastern Iran 25,000
Other major earthquakes were recorded in some 33 places
[Chart on page 7]
(Estimation based on 1,122 years)
Up to 1914—1,800 a year
Since 1914—25,300 a year